Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Why is this lobby in such a frenzy to overturn GMOs ban that never was?

By KAMAU KANIARU

The supporters of biotechnology have launched a new offensive to overturn last November’s Cabinet decision purporting to ban imports of genetically engineered foods.

The pro-GMO lobby knows very well the ban never amounted to anything but is sparing no efforts to overturn it nonetheless.

The lobby’s strategy has so far been aimed at showing that the decision was ill-conceived, particularly because it was influenced by an allegedly flawed scientific study by eminent French molecular biologist, Prof Gilles-Eric Seralini.

The lobby has repeatedly asserted that Seralini’s study was dismissed by scientists in his own country, but has carefully omitted to acknowledge that a larger body of French scientists publicly supported the study and harshly condemned the attacks on Seralini.

Such was the position until last week when the Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Dr Romano Kiome, dropped a bombshell. He said the ban was merely political and legally unenforceable, as the responsibility for making decisions regarding GMO crops lay with the Biosafety Authority of Kenya and not the Cabinet or Minister for Public Health.

The revelation was not really surprising as it did not affect on-going biotechnology research or genetically engineered crops already planted in the country. If the ban was that ineffectual, why are we witnessing the spirited campaign by the pro-GMO lobby to overturn it? Something else is at stake.

The Cabinet’s decision to ban imports of GMO foodstuffs may have been precipitate and ill-advised, but the half-truths and outright lies being peddled by the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum and others in criticising the Cabinet decision inflict serious damage to their case.

Yes, the Cabinet decision came hot on the heels of the study by Prof Seralini. The study linked the consumption of genetically modified maize variety NK603 and herbicide Roundup to cancerous tumours, liver and kidney damage in laboratory rats.

A few months ago, ABSF put out newspaper advertisements headlined, “GM is Safe, Seralini is a Hoax”. ABSF asserted that Seralini’s study was found to have serious defects in design and methodology by the European Food Safety Authority.

Because of these defects, Efsa said, Seralini’s report did not meet acceptable scientific standards and there was, therefore, no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of genetically modified maize.

ABSF and other subsequent pro-GMO commentators did not disclose that the 10-year-old Efsa has been found to have egregious conflicts of interest, which have seriously compromised its decision-making procedures.

For instance, the Efsa expert assigned the task of reviewing Seralini’s report, Andrew Chesson, was the same person who in 2003 advised the approval of NK603 for use in Europe.

Predictably, Chesson dismissed Seralini’s report and that became the position taken by Efsa. The conflict of interest is clear, but ABSF, which must be having access to this information, has chosen to ignore it in its defence of Efsa’s dismissal of Seralini’s report.

Indeed, the European Court of Auditors issued a strongly worded condemnation of Efsa over its inability or unwillingness to steer clear of conflicts of interest when making important decisions.

ABSF and other pro-GMO commentators also assert that “Seralini’s study was found to be flawed even by scientists in his own country”. This claim is not entirely true. A group of 12 French scientists led by Marc Fellous, president of the French Association of Plant Biotechnology and an avowed enemy of Seralini, issued a statement trashing Seralini’s study the day after it was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology.
The 12 claimed to be representing six French scientific academies.

Seralini had previously been a target of vilification attacks by Marc Fellous and others arising from a study he released in 2010 pointing out possible health risks associated with consumption of genetically modified maize varieties.

He sued Fellous for defamation and the court ruled in his favour in January 2011 and awarded damages and costs against Fellous.

Thus the Marc Fellous-led attack on Seralini’s report may have been motivated by other factors, particularly his biotechnology links and, quite possibly, bitterness arising from the defamation case.

Mr Kaniaru, an independent journalist, is currently researching and writing on health matters. ([email protected])

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